‘Air Bud’ Mixes Antics With Bittersweet Reality

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If ever there was a 12-year-old boy who needed a dog, it would be Josh Framm (Kevin Zegers) in Disney’s delightful family comedy “Air Bud.” If ever there was a dog in need of a new master, it’s a golden retriever Josh names Buddy.

Josh’s mother, Jackie (Wendy Makkena), who has recently lost her husband in an accident, has decided to try to start a new life for herself, her son and her toddler daughter in the idyllic Washington town where her grandparents once lived. Devastated by the loss of his father, Josh has a tough time adjusting to a new environment.

He dreams of playing basketball, but before he gets to open his mouth, the gruff coach at his new school instantly designates him the team’s water boy. It’s when Josh discovers a basketball hoop adjacent to an abandoned rural church that he meets Buddy, who bounces back the ball to him when it rolls into a thicket. It takes a lot of persuasion and patience--not to mention pudding--on the part of Josh to get Buddy to come out of the bushes, let alone trust him.


What we know and Josh doesn’t is that the dog is an escapee from a singularly nasty master, the world’s worst juggler, a clown (Michael Jeter) who calls himself Happy Slappy the Clown With a Hound and entertains at children’s parties. (This is not so different from what Buddy experienced in real life, according to production notes.) Buddy’s ability to bounce back balloons and catch tennis balls in his mouth is the only thing that works in Happy’s pathetic act. But then Josh discovers Buddy has an astonishing talent.

Adults will know where this fine film is heading from the get-go, but “Air Bud” is admirable for the way in which writers Paul Tamasy and Aaron Mendelsohn have injected a sense of reality amid lots of rousing fantasy calamities involving the bull-in-a-china-shop Buddy. They are honest about the effect of losing a parent, of how alone an adolescent can feel and how in sports being a team player is as important as winning. They suggest that life can be cruelly unjust and require painful sacrifices while affirming that good can triumph over evil with a lot of effort and determination--and with a little luck, too.

Throughout this handsome film, actor-turned-director Charlie Martin Smith manages to shift the tone between pathos and humor seamlessly as he draws ensemble portrayals from his large cast. “Air Bud” has been made with consistent care and intelligence, and its happy ending is well earned.

Zegers, Makkena, Bill Cobbs, as a school engineer with a surprising secret, and Jeter, who can play hilariously hyper characters like no one else, all have the chance to show us the various facets of the people they play so well. Still, it’s the amazingly alert and expressive Buddy, in the film’s title role, who’s the scene-stealer here--and, guess what, he even performs his own stunts.

* MPAA rating: PG, for brief mild language. Times guidelines: There are scenes suggesting the threat but not the depiction of animal abuse that probably are fine for most children.


‘Air Bud’

Michael Jeter: Norm Snively, a.k.a. Happy Slappy the Clown With a Hound

Kevin Zegers: Josh Framm

Wendy Makkena: Jackie Framm

Bill Cobbs: Arthur Chaney

Buddy: Buddy/Air Bud

A Walt Disney Pictures presentation in association with Keystone Pictures. Director Charlie Martin Smith. Producers William Vince and Robert Vince. Executive producers Michael Strange and Anne Vince. Executive producers Bob Weinstein and Harvey Weinstein. Screenplay Paul Tamasy and Aaron Mendelsohn; based on the character “Air Bud” created by Kevin DiCicco. Cinematographer Mike Southon. Editor Alison Grace. Costumes Jana Stern. Music Brahm Wenger. Production designer Elizabeth Wilcox. Art director Eric Fraser. Set decorator David Chiasson. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.


* In general release throughout Southern California.